In my opinion ‘if’ is the most philosophical and at the same time also -and perhaps precisely because of this- the most honed conjunction. It is often regarded as a little word for dreamers who want to put up a border around reality in its coincidental appearance against everything that could just as well be possible, or would be. With ‘if’ we preface assumptions that have to do with that. That way it contributes to a dislocation of obviousness, which is a pre-eminently philosophical activity. Sometimes all that’s needed for it is a trifle. If for example Cleopatra’s nose had been shorter, Pascal thought, the whole face of the earth would have changed. People with a sense of reality, or at least with a sense of the way they have to come across as though they have a realistic view of things, don’t want to hear of such talk. They refuse to entertain questions that begin with ‘if’ and they’ve learned from their grandparents that if the skies fall, we all wear blue hats. Especially vigorous administrators have a dislike of questions that start with ‘if’. Even though the word belongs to the verbal package of the foresight that government is supposed to be, they prefer to just see to it when we get there and therefore to dispense of foresight and prefer to decisively react in the moment itself, so to improvise rather than to foresee.
There is an ‘if’ as in ‘in case of’ in which the future and its foresight are the subject; and there is an ‘if’ that relates to the past, so two types of ‘if this happens’ and ‘if this happened or had happened’. The first one is called realis, not because it really happens, but because the speaker leaves open the possibility that it will happen sooner or later, and the second is called irrealis, because the speaker is convinced that it hasn’t happened and can not happen anymore. He complies with its inevitable consequences, but is aware that it might as well could have happened. In the case of Cleopatra’s nose, Pascal was speaking in the irrealis. And when I say ‘if I lived in the middle ages’, I thereby express that I can only dream of that, but it also gives me a certain perspective on the life I lead now, not on the way I should arrange it, but on the fascinating coincidences that make it like it is now. Sentences with ‘if’ are always about the present. They give relief to a reality against a background of possibilities of which we’re trying to form an image.
Because decisive and practical realists appear not to dream and because they mix up dreaming and contemplating and realis and irrealis, to them everything that seems to be reality also seems to be obvious, and thoughts of all that is not reality, are then also nonsense. In their eyes nothing could have been different from what it became. That it, coincidentally or not, is what it is, means that it must be that way too. That it was a hair’s width and everything would have been completely different or hadn’t existed at all, does not seem to matter to them; that it does exist and is what it is, they undergo without any trace of surprise. Or maybe, I think in an attempt to save a piece of their soul, they just pretend, to restrain others from plunging into the abyss of wonder?